Flipboard and Outdated Copyright Law

There is an interesting article about the recently released social reader app for the iPad, Flipboard, and copyright law. While the “scraping” the app does is apparently similar to what Google News does, there is a renewed focus on how existing copyright laws cannot handle new modes of information transmission.

The app, on the surface, appears to just gather articles and posts from various source around the web, and let the user view them in a magazine-like format. If it was able to use an RSS feed to accomplish this, there would be no issue. But, in order to deliver the user experience Flipboard wants, they “scrape” the content from the web and publish it agin through their servers. They call the process “parsing”. In an interview, co-founder Evan Doll said, “It simply wouldn’t be possible to run on the client for reasons of speed and complexity.”

Does the app technically violate existing copyright law? Yes. It takes intellectual property from others, stores it on servers, and republishes it in a slightly different form. At the very least it violates the derivative work and distribution clauses of the copyright act.

Does the app violate the spirit of the copyright act, and use the content in a way that the authors would/should not allow? I don’t think so. Isn’t the point of putting this content on the web for people to read it? I can tell you that using Flipboard has dramatically increased the amount and variety of internet content I view. Instead of having to go to multiple websites, the content is gathered and delivered in an easy to read format. Not only have I continued to read sources that I had already been using, but I am seeing new sources.

In the world of social media, and sharing/liking, the old ways of protecting content do not work. Flipboard is doing what companies should be doing; adding value to the user’s experience. Flipboard is also adding value to the websites and content creators. They are driving users to their sites. They provide a snippet of content, and a link to the full content on the content creator’s page.

Bill Seaver from Micro Explosion Media says the “Golden Rule” of social media is to always add value to the people you want to reach. Do that, and they will in turn and in time take care of you. Hopefully that rule will apply to this situation.

In the same interview from earlier, Doll said, “In the past 48 hours, we’ve received an incredibly positive response from content creators who are happy about being featured in Flipboard, and who want to work with us on doing a better job displaying their content. Hopefully we can do more on this front soon.”

In my opinion, what Flipboard is doing should be explicitly legal. Gathering content from public web sites and delivering them to users should not be illegal, even if the content is passed through a server to prep the content for better delivery. I know this isn’t the most important thing the government should be looking at, but an across the board revisit to the rules surrounding digital content would be welcome.

Current copyright law cannot handle the changes in media distribution and consumption. In the meantime, smart content providers will work with companies that create apps like Flipboard, not against them. They should join Flipboard in making the experience of viewing their content better.